David Duke has achieved at least two things I would have thought impossible just weeks ago: He has forced me to worry about Louisiana politics and made me watch the Phil Donahue show.
Louisiana, of course, is the toxic waste dump of American politics, and most television talk shows are the intellectual equivalent of mud wrestling. But to see Duke in action, as one could on the Donahue show this week--to hear him win applause by talking about his devotion to "European, Christian civilization" and his aversion to the prospect of his daughter abandoning her "heritage" by marrying a black man--is to understand just how high the stakes really are in Saturday's Louisiana gubernatorial election. That race pits the twice-indicted former governor, Democrat Edwin Edwards, against Duke, a registered Republican, former Ku Klux Klan leader and lifelong adherent of Nazi racial theories, who once called Adolf Hitler "the greatest genius who ever lived."
Neither of the latter biographical facts seemed to matter much to those members of the New York City television audience who applauded Duke this week or to the Louisiana voters who, according to the polls, have put him in a close race with Edwards. That ought to matter to the rest of us, for their indifference to Duke's sinister beliefs is no aberration. Rather, it is the predictable, if unforeseen, consequence of three realities of American political life.
The first of these is that festering, long-ignored social and economic problems create a climate in which people's worst instincts come to the surface. That was true in Germany in 1932, and it is true now in Louisiana, where 10 years of economic depression and decades of civic corruption have made voters desperate about the present and pessimistic about the future.
Second, America's two-party system is more polarized along racial lines than it has been at any time since Reconstruction. And it is so by design. Beginning with Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," the Party of Lincoln has transformed itself into the party of white anxiety.
That has had its consequences: As one prominent GOP strategist who asked not to be identified remarked to me this week, "Nationally, the Republican Party is exclusively a white people's party." Moreover, there is a direct rhetorical line that runs from Nixon's "silent majority" to Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" to George Bush's "Willie Horton" to David Duke's dark whispers of seduction.
As political analyst William Schneider said to me, "It's important to remember that, in public at least, Duke isn't saying anything about welfare, affirmative action or anything else that George Bush hasn't already said."
Finally, there is the transformation Ronald Reagan wrought in our electoral politics. His genius--unequaled since Franklin Roosevelt's--was the realization that a generally prosperous but morally uncertain electorate wanted leaders who spoke not only to their common material aspirations, but also to their private values and, too often, their fears.
Enter David Duke.
More than any other individual, veteran Republican political strategist Stue Spencer was responsible for transforming Ronald Reagan's intuition of a sea change in American politics into a concrete electoral strategy. I asked him whether he thought Duke is primarily a problem for Louisiana, the country or the Republican Party. "All three in about that order," Spencer replied. "I've worked Louisiana. I know that state. I ran a governor's race there in '79. So I'm not surprised as others are at the way this has evolved.
"Louisiana is really two worlds: One is called New Orleans, urban and sophisticated with an upwardly mobile population, including blacks, who are middle-class and doing very well financially. Then there is rural Louisiana, which is red-neck white and very poor black. There's a lot of disaffection there because the state's economy, which was totally built on oil, has collapsed.
"Duke hits a chord there. They're not interested in his past because in a lot of those rural areas it's the same as theirs--the Klan part of it anyway; the Nazi stuff is something very new. Even so, I think the chances of him winning Saturday are rather good."
Spencer was the first national political tactician to recognize the importance of the Christian right and its electronic church. What does he think of Duke's claim that a religious conversation makes his past as a Klansman and Nazi irrelevant?
"What he's doing is self-evident. He's a manipulative person, and he's taken the language of the Evangelical Christians and used it to launder his past. There's no doubt about that. Do I believe it? No, I don't believe it. Do the people of Louisiana believe it? Well, it gives them a safe haven, if they want to vote that way. This man has dangerous aspects. There's no doubt about it."
Haven't the divisive, racially polarized "value" politics of the past decade made the emergence of someone like Duke, if not inevitable, at least probable?